The Citadel – Gozo’s Medievel Fortress
18th August 2019
Rising dramatically above Gozo’s capital city of Victoria, the medieval fortress of the Citadel imposes itself on the surrounding landscape. Also known as the Cittadella, it occupies a strategic vantage point at the geographic heart of the island. For me, no visit to Gozo would be complete without exploring its rich architecture and history.
The hill on which this fortress sits has likely been settled since Neolithic times and fortified since the Bronze Age. The north side of the present battlements date from the 13th to 15th centuries, what’s called the Aragonese period. However, what we see today mostly dates back to the period of the Knights of St John and the Order of Malta, who rebuilt the fortifications between 1599 and 1603 in response to the recurring threat from Ottoman corsairs.
Until 1637 the entire population of Gozo was actually required by law to spend the night within the Citadel to ensure their safety from capture and enslavement. A few families still live within the walls of the Citadel today.
Exploring the Citadel
Like every other visitor attraction in the world, get there early! There is just something completely magical about walking these ancient winding streets without another person in sight, just the sounds of the breeze and the birds and the city traffic far below.
The Citadel is free to enter and walk around; however, if you want to visit any or all of the 5 museums within the walls you’ll need to purchase a ticket at the Visitor Centre. It’s really good value, though:
Be sure to pick up a map of the site while you’re there – it may be a relatively small city within a city but it seems huge once you’re inside and the narrow streets feel a bit like a maze!
The entrance to the Citadel is through the original entrance, which was only rediscovered in 2015.
You’re immediately confronted with high limestone walls glowing golden in the sunlight and narrow, winding streets.
I didn’t actually have a plan for exploring this fortress, so with map in hand I randomly chose the right-hand street and began walking. Almost immediately I walked past the five original cathedral bells, from largest to smallest, protected behind iron bars.
These bells were all cast at the foundry of the Knights of St John in Valletta on the island of Malta between 1639 and 1739. The largest bell is embossed with an image of the Virgin Mary surrounded by cherubim; the smallest and next smallest bells have Latin inscriptions that translate respectively as ‘I call the living and weep for the dead’ and ‘I have the power to expel demons and calm tempests’. I could almost hear the sounds of these bells as they might have rung out against storm and invasion or in celebration.
A break in the walls leads up a steep flight of worn stone steps.
At the top, I found myself at the southern end of the Citadel on St Michael’s Bastion, a triangular-shaped bulwark typical of the defensive structures that dominated from the mid-16th to mid-19th centuries.
The bastion is a huge flat structure with sweeping views over Victoria to the south. From the far corner I had my first glimpse of the Gozo Cathedral.
I found more steps leading down and across the back of the piazza that fronts the Gozo Cathedral.
The piazza is huge and was completely deserted when I arrived; just a few hours later the steps at the entrance were filled with people resting in the shade on what was a very hot day. The church is built in the baroque style and excavations during the building of the Cathedral in the late 17th and early 18th century suggest a Roman temple to the goddess Juno once stood here.
A more recent 5-year renewal project to clean up the ruins and restore many of the buildings was completed in 2016. These works also unearthed many previously unseen parts of the Cittadella, such as the original entrance and many underground tunnels.
There are a number of passageways that lead off from this square and very close by are the museums and specific sections that give a fascinating insight into the history of this site:
- The Museum of Archaeology is located down an alley to the right of the piazza. It was the first museum opened on Gozo and focuses on the early cultures of Gozo, with relics from the Ggantija temple complex and the Xaghra stone circles.
- The Cathedral Museum is just up the alley to the left of the square, and has pieces of a Doric column from the Roman era that were part of the temple to Juno that stood here.
- The Old Prison and the Gozo Nature Museum are to the left as you walk towards the northern walls and the oldest sections of the Citadel. You’ll also find the Old Gunpowder Magazine, the Grain Silos, the Battery and the World War II Shelter as you wander around and through the fortress.
Entrance to all these places is included in the price of your €5 ticket. You can buy in advance online from Heritage Malta which may be best if you’re going on a weekend or later in the day. Although when I arrived right at opening time there was no queue.
Along the ramparts and into the ruins
The museums are fascinating and well worth a visit, but for me best part was walking along the winding streets and up towards the back of the fortress.
These stone steps lead to St Martin’s Cavalier and the beginning of a very different, much older area of the Citadel.
Here the enclosed city gives way to ruins and a wide walkway around the high northern edge of the fortress. It’s bounded on either side by two demi-bastions – fortifications built into the right angles of the fortress walls having only one face and one flank – St Martin’s in the west and St John’s in the east.
View of St John’s Cavalier and Gozo Cathedral from the walkway
The walkway runs around the entire northern perimeter of the Citadel; the outer wall came up almost to my shoulders, so no fear of falling from the ramparts!
This is the definite highlight of a visit here; there are sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, including this view of Tas-Salvatur Hill.
This relatively small, pointed hill that looks like a volcano (but isn’t!) can be seen from much of Gozo. A statue of Christ the Redeemer was placed here in the 1970s and it remains a place of popular religious myth and legend.
But, tear your eyes away from the magnificent outward views and walk down among the ruins.
I found this entire area completely captivating. From a medieval archway and stone steps to nowhere, to a glimpse into what might have been an ancient courtyard. And I just couldn’t resist this sweet little kitten sound asleep in the shade!
Back into the ancient city
Wandering back down from the old ruins into the old city again, you pass under a medieval archway formed by a succession of three equilateral pointed arches. This archway would have provided support to the adjacent buildings and also served as shelter for the open markets.
Leaving the archway, I walked back down through the maze of winding golden streets.
These streets are narrow with many sharp turns and dead ends orginally intended to slow down invaders.
I loved the old stone houses with their colourful shutters on the windows and doors.
Be sure to look up towards the top of these walls. There are all sorts of niches, bas-reliefs, and inscriptions, like this stone plaque dated 1529 high up on one of the walls. It records the site of the house of Bernardo de Opuo, from Villa Mirados, Sicily. The story goes that when the city fell to the Turks in 1551, rather than being taken into captivity and slavery, Bernardo killed his wife and two children, then fought to his death.
This is just one of the many stories that infuse this historic site. I really loved it and recommend setting aside a good chunk of the day. I knew nothing about the history of this part of the world before my visit and there’s just so much to see and learn.
Getting to Victoria and the Citadel
All roads lead to Victoria, the capital city of Gozo; still locally known as Ir-Rabat, it was renamed in 1887 in honour of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Tthere are plenty of busses every day of the week to get here from wherever you are on Gozo. I took the number 310 bus from Marsalforn to Victoria, a journey of about 10 minutes.
Once you get to the main bus terminal in central Victoria it’s not immediately clear which way to walk. I had thought there would be some signage and everyone I spoke to beforehand told me to just look up, that the Citadel can be seen from everywhere. Well, not quite true, you can’t see it from the bus station!
As in the map below, I turned right out of the bus station and then took a left where there’s a clear sign towards the Citadel.
On the way to and from the Citadel you walk through the centre of Victoria, Independence Square, also known as It-Tokk. The square is dominated by the Banca Giuratale – the old town hall and a former seat of government, now home to the local council. There’s an open market here in the mornings alongside open-air cafes. It’s a bustling, vibrant place with shops and street vendors.
It’s well worth a walk through the maze of charming narrow streets off It-Tokk…
…which lead to a small square and the heart of the old town, St George’s Basilica. This 17th century baroque church is also referred to as the Marble Basilica because the interior is covered with marble.
From Independence Square, cross the street and walk up the short but very steep hill to the Citadel.
You can find more photos in my The Citadel Photo Album
And look out for my next post, coming soon.